22 February 2018 – A recent ruling by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Regional Court of Justice which found that draconian media laws on sedition, false news and criminal defamation violate the right to freedom of expression in Gambia, marks a watershed moment for freedom of expression in West Africa, said PEN International today. The Gambia was directed to immediately repeal or amend laws on criminal libel, sedition and false news in line with obligations under international law.
“We are thrilled by this ruling which sets an important precedent for all ECOWAS countries and adds impetus to continent wide calls for repeal of repressive laws such as criminal defamation,” said Ebony Riddell Bamber, Director of Advocacy & Communications at PEN International. “We urge the Gambian authorities to act swiftly to implement the ruling and repeal the laws on criminal libel, sedition, and false news and hope that other West African states that retain these laws will also take steps to do the same.”
The case was filed in December 2015 by MLDI and a team of international and Nigerian lawyers on behalf of four exiled Gambian journalists who had been arrested and detained by the Gambian authorities. The case was also brought in the name of the Federation of African Journalists. The judgment was delivered on 14 February 2018.
PEN International and PEN Centres including PEN Afrikaans, PEN America Centre, PEN Eritrea in Exile, PEN Ghana, PEN Kenya, PEN Nigeria, PEN Sierra Leone and PEN South Africa intervened as amici curiae (friends of the court), alongside a coalition of other freedom of expression organisations.
Commenting on the ruling, Musa Sheriff, President of PEN Gambia, said: “The government needs to urgently repeal the laws of sedition, criminal defamation, false publication on the internet and false publication and broadcasting.”
PEN International and PEN Centres in Africa have long called for the repeal of criminal defamation and insult laws in Africa. Over the past two years, PEN Centres have carried out a campaign, funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), to highlight the impact of these laws, with a focus on Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia. A recent PEN report revealed that the threat of criminal sanctions deters media investigations into and reporting of issues governments consider sensitive or embarrassing. In many cases, where journalists, editors or publishers have refused to be cowed into self-censorship by these laws, they have been subject to arrest, detention, prosecution and long drawn out trials, and sometimes imprisonment for months or even years, leading to a culture of fear.
For further details please contact Lianna Merner, Africa Programme Coordinator, PEN International, on +442074050338 or email@example.com